At 42, life was going great.
Healthy, happy, active, a parent of two beautiful teenage daughters, financially secure and seemingly invincible, I wasn’t worried about what tomorrow might bring. But, in a split second on a snowy ski slope, my life changed forever. Suddenly I was quadriplegic and had -- like about 10,000 other people every year -- no choice but to learn how to live with the consuming changes a spinal cord injury brings.
It wasn’t until later--much later--that I also realized just how much that accident had changed the lives of my two daughters. Indeed, after two years of worrying mainly about my own physical and emotional crises, I was forced to come to grips with the fact that more was scarred than just my spinal cord.
While it was easy to recognize the changes in my life, it wasn’t so easy to assess the damage done to my daughters, Barbie and Leslie. I had to ask myself: Are my kids emotionally “at risk” because of my situation? How have they dealt (or not dealt) with the loss of a “normal” parent? How have they adjusted to the fact that our finances are depleted, our house is gone and my job has disappeared?
Do I really have any idea what all this has done to my daughters? The extent to which their perceptions of safety and security have changed? Would it have made a difference had I asked these questions earlier? Indeed, who helps parents grapple with these questions? With the guilt? The fears? Who helps their children realize they have every right to be afraid and no reason to feel guilty?
I wrote the above just two years after my accident, and when I finished it had turned into articles that were eventually published in Habilitation
newsmagazine and in Spinal Network Extra
, which was the precursor to New Mobility
magazine. The articles included interviews with several other parents who had become spinal cord injured later in life, and in the process I learned that children have an amazing ability to recover from serious trauma involving their parents or other family members.
My own injury occurred over 25 years ago, and even though the time seems to have flown by quickly, I can remember everything that has occurred in the meantime. Prior to 1988 I could not have imagined watching my children grow up under the circumstances we found ourselves in that year. My daughters have matured beautifully, accomplishing things academically, in business and in their family lives that would have seemed unattainable shortly after my accident. They have children of their own now, and I am proud of the way they are raising them.
Like all parents, those of us who are disabled need to be vigilant to ensure that our children do not stray into the world of alcohol and substance abuse or begin associating with the wrong crowds. They need to have the expectation that we will attend their school activities and cheer them on at sports, even if we need to deal with caregivers and specialized or public transportation to get there. When we are newly injured, those might seem like unrealistic expectations, but it is worth the effort. As long as I was living close enough to drive I have been able to do that, with the biggest problem encountered when I had to figure out how to get all of the soccer field mud out of my wheelchair tire treads.
Lessons learned from the interviews with professionals and parents that were used in these articles included a common thread. They emphasized that open communication was a key factor in being able to provide their children with what might be considered a normal upbringing. There were times when they had to rely on their children, especially those in the teenage years, to perform activities of a personal-care nature when caregivers failed to show up or for convenience when traveling. Being open about why that assistance was so important, and eliciting feedback if a family member seemed uncomfortable in the process, allowed an outlet for those who might be reluctant to do the work while still maintaining a healthy parental relationship.
Don't get me wrong. Parenting is tough under the best of circumstances, and when you throw in a spinal cord injury and the limitations that injury causes it can get even tougher. Life goes on though, and there are thousands of parents with disabilities raising wonderful families in this country today.
Those who encounter difficulties should not blame themselves, but should instead seek out counseling, sometimes even joint counseling with their children, to work out any problems. Qualified counselors can be located by contacting the regional spinal cord injury centers
located throughout the country.
Recovery and adjustment are family activities that require time and patience...and a sense of humor. It’s also important to remember that one of the best medicines on earth is free and equally benefits both the giver and the receiver: a big hug several times a day.
For families dealing with the day to day frustrations, challenges, and limitations of a disability, that bit of advice can come as a refreshing, reaffirming piece of news.
© 2013 Michael Collins